Some of the most famous zoos in the world have been having a hard time making ends meet recently. The Bronx Zoo's budget was slashed in 2012, the Oregon Zoo has faced huge revenue loss, and the pandas at the San Diego Zoo don't bring in enough cash to warrant their tenure there.
In the wake of exposés like Blackfish, people simply seem to be more wary of supporting organizations that keep animals confined in small paddocks. And while many zoos do impressive conservation work, nothing is worse than watching an oblivious flock of children frustrate the hell out of an orangutan. But the trend doesn't have to be bad for zoos either. It just means that they are subject to the same rules that shaped their animal wards: Evolve or die.
This choice has unleashed a spectacular interdisciplinary rush of creativity. Over the weekend, Danish architecture firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) released a slew of concept drawings of their latest project: a cage-free revamp of the Givskud Zoo in central Denmark. Inevitably, it's called Zootopia.
"Architects' greatest and most important task is to design man-made ecosystems—to ensure that our cities and buildings suit the way we want to live," the company said of the project in a statement.
"Nowhere is this challenge more acrimonious that in a zoo. It is our dream—with Givskud—to create the best possible and freest possible environment for the animals' lives and relationships with each other and visitors."
The 300-acre complex will be divided into open range sections for Asian, African, and American ecosystems. Visitors will be able to survey the giant paddocks from a high perimeter wall, or can take in the sights by bike, boat, truck, or even cable car. There will also be a four mile hiking trail that borders each of the three main ranges.
Additionally, BIG is keen on brainstorming ways to hide the spectators from view, for the benefit of both the humans and the animals. One of the concepts is to plate the cable cars with mirrors, making them seem less threatening.
That idea seems a little farfetched, and accordingly, the mockup drawing is pretty unsettling. Why would a bear be more freaked out by a cable car than this weird, vague human shape in a reflective ball? I would definitely be more disturbed by the latter, were I a bear.
Even with its more puzzling features, the sheer inventiveness of the park makes it an exciting prospect, though we'll have to wait until 2019 before any of it opens. But BIG isn't the only organization that has been trying to reinvent the zoo to be simultaneously more humane and educational.
Indeed, many zoos have already taken the same tack as BIG, with the animals' comfort being the central design concern. Just a few months ago, the Paris Zoo reopened with a new infrastructure rife with huge ecological "biozones" over smaller enclosures for individual species.
Another way to dodge the ethical conundrum of captive animals is to build a structure that can be used by wild animals. Two of the coolest concepts along these lines are tailored for migratory birds, and have been suggested separately by Mexican and Argentinian architecture firms.
The idea is to build "vertical zoos," meaning an open tower equipped with plenty of food, shelter, and foliage for passing birds. Visitors could observe the travelers as they pass through, and the tower itself could bolster avian biodiversity in the area.
Some conservationists, however, would prefer to scrap any direct interaction between animals and humans. As I wrote two months back, webcam zoos are one easy way to help people feel connected to wildlife without disturbing any animals.
The nonprofit explore.org has dozens of cameras set up across the world, monitoring different species in the wild. Sure, it's a little voyeuristic, but it's better to spy on a young snowy owl family in its native habitat than in a tiny aviary at a zoo.
This approach has the added advantage of allowing people to observe genuinely wild behavior. The grizzly bears at Zootopia may eventually get used to the weird, mirrored cable cars, but the grizzly bears monitored by the Brook Falls webcam don't even know that hundreds of creepers are watching them chill out in a river. There's something very cool about seeing these animals simply being themselves.
Another angle is to replace biological animals with artificial doppelgangers. Perhaps cyborg zoos, or zoos packed with cloned animals are next on the horizon. Given that some futurists have even suggested dunking resurrected Wooly mammoths into a zoo, the possibilities for newfangled zoo concepts seem endless.
So while traditional zoos have taken a blow of late, the zoos of the future are shaping up to be just as entertaining, plus they have the added advantage of removing the guilt trip that inevitably comes with making eye contact with a caged animal. So while humans may never figure out how to build a utopian society, we might at least manage a zootopian one.